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Debunking Writing Myths: Always/Never Use “Said” Dialogue Tags

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Never use a “said” dialogue tag. / The only dialogue tag you should ever use is “said.”

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Like anything else in writing, overuse of anything is lazy writing and can frustrate readers (and editors).

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Back in the day when most of us started writing, the books we were reading used dialogue tags such as:

…she announced
…she stated
…he commanded
…he explained
…she muttered
…he contradicted
…he assured
…she expressed
…he said cheerfully
…he said heavily
…she echoed
…he said laughingly
…he demanded
…she whispered breathlessly
…she intoned incredulously

Remember those? Because we were so used to reading them (and yes, I pulled out two books that I took all of those from—one from the mid-1980s, the other from the early 1990s), that’s how we attributed our dialogue when we first started writing.

But times—and accepted styles—have changed.

“The only attribution (dialogue tag) you’ll normally need is ‘said,’ although there will be times when more specific verbs such as ‘whisper’ or ‘yell’ or ‘ask’ might be called for” (William G. Tapply, “Dialogue: The lifebood of the mystery story,” The Writer, October 2008, p. 31).

When I was in graduate school it was explained this way: readers see “said” or “asked” much like a period or comma. It’s more like punctuation than anything else, therefore those are unobtrusive. However, as a reader and editor—and as someone who listens to audiobooks more than I read actual physical books—I can attest to the fact that “said” dialogue tags get very old very fast if those are the only way the author attributes the dialogue in his/her book. Just as we want to look for ways to make our writing stronger when it comes to verb or adverb use, we want to make sure we’re not overusing any words, and that includes the words said and asked, even as dialogue tags. And the best way to do that is with action and/or introspection laced in with the dialogue.

Here’s an example of how “said”-type dialogue tags can overwhelm and stunt a scene:

      . . . . .The house lights rose, and when Zarah turned to look at Bobby, to ask him what he thought, she caught sight of a scowl before he quickly rearranged his expression into a smile and unfolded his arms.
      . . . . .“I’m almost afraid to ask you what you think of it so far,” Zarah said.
      . . . . .“The performances are great. Your friend—Caylor?—isn’t really Irish, is she?” Bobby asked.
      . . . . .“No. She spent a year in Britain—England, Ireland, and Scotland—working on her master’s degree. She’s always had an ear for accents, but she came back sounding like she’d grown up over there,” Zarah said as she curled the cardstock program in her hands. “But what do you think of the story?”
      . . . . .“Honestly?” Bobby asked.
      . . . . . “Honestly,” Zarah said.
      . . . . . “It bothers me,” Bobby said.
      . . . . . “Bothers you? In what way?” Zarah asked as she turned sideways and leaned her arm against the seat back.
      . . . . . “Well. . .this Harold guy, he’s a con man,” Bobby said.
      . . . . . “Right,” Zarah said. “That’s who he is at the beginning of the story. I don’t want to give away the ending, but most stories are about someone who needs to go through some kind of change—a metamorphosis—and grow into a better person. So they have to start out with flaws.”
      . . . . . “Flaws? Zarah, the man’s a criminal,” Bobby said, and his face turned red when a few people turned at his raised voice. He turned to face her, his knee touching hers. “I’m just saying that I’ve had lots of experience with men like that over the past several years. They don’t change their ways.”
      . . . . . He looked so earnest, so concerned over the plight of the fictional people Harold Hill was in the process of swindling, that Zarah wanted to reach out and hug him. Instead, she leaned back a little. “It’s called willing suspension of disbelief. You should try it,” she said.
      . . . . . Bobby ducked his head, a grin forming. “Fine. For your sake, I’ll try to enjoy the rest of the play—I’ll try to forget that master manipulators never stop trying to manipulate people,” he said as he reached over and squeezed her hand.

Now, here’s the scene the way I actually wrote it (from Love Remains):

      . . . . .The house lights rose, and when Zarah turned to look at Bobby, to ask him what he thought, she caught sight of a scowl before he quickly rearranged his expression into a smile and unfolded his arms.
      . . . . . “I’m almost afraid to ask you what you think of it so far.”
      . . . . .Bobby glanced at the stage and then back at her. “The performances are great. Your friend—Caylor?—isn’t really Irish, is she?”
      . . . . . “No. She spent a year in Britain—England, Ireland, and Scotland—working on her master’s degree. She’s always had an ear for accents, but she came back sounding like she’d grown up over there.” Zarah curled the cardstock program in her hands. “But what do you think of the story?”
      . . . . .Bobby pressed his lips together—making them almost entirely disappear. “Honestly?”
      . . . . .She nodded. “Honestly.”
      . . . . . “It bothers me.”
      . . . . . “Bothers you? In what way?” With Kiki having left to go to the restroom with Sassy and Lindy, Zarah turned sideways, leaning her arm against the seat back.
      . . . . . “Well. . .this Harold guy, he’s a con man.” Bobby’s expression indicated this should be enough explanation.
      . . . . .But Zarah wasn’t quite following him. “Right. That’s who he is at the beginning of the story. I don’t want to give away the ending, but most stories are about someone who needs to go through some kind of change—a metamorphosis—and grow into a better person. So they have to start out with flaws.”
      . . . . . “Flaws? Zarah, the man’s a criminal.” Bobby nodded, red-faced, at the few people who turned at his raised voice. He turned to face her, his knee touching hers. “I’m just saying that I’ve had lots of experience with men like that over the past several years. They don’t change their ways.”
      . . . . .He looked so earnest, so concerned over the plight of the fictional people Harold Hill was in the process of swindling, that Zarah wanted to reach out and hug him. Instead, she leaned back a little. “It’s called willing suspension of disbelief. You should try it.”
      . . . . .Bobby ducked his head, a grin forming. “Fine. For your sake, I’ll try to enjoy the rest of the play—I’ll try to forget that master manipulators never stop trying to manipulate people.” He reached over and squeezed her hand.

See what a difference eliminating unnecessary said/asked tags, and replacing some with action/introspection can make?

Sometimes, when dialogue is moving quickly and you need to pepper in an attribution here and there to make sure the reader knows who’s speaking (especially when there are more than two characters “on stage”), a good “said” dialogue tag can be particularly useful. Embellished dialogue tags—those using more descriptive verbs or, even worse, adverbs—come across as author intrusion. If your character has just explained something in dialogue, the reader knows it and doesn’t need a “she explained” tag. Same thing with “argued,” “elaborated,” or “confirmed.”

If you have an action or introspection that follows the dialogue, you don’t need to use said/asked. (And it will also eliminate the unnecessary/repetitious use of “as” and “when,” as shown in the examples.)

Have you ever read something and noticed the dialogue tags because they were so overdone they brought attention to themselves? How do you prefer to see/use dialogue tags in what you read/write?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, March 15, 2011 1:37 am

    at the moment I cant think of any books where the tags have been a problem but reading your sample I sure can see how they would be. When reading I think we automatically know whos speaking so being told isn’t needed. Although the book I just finished a couple of times I had to reread a few comments to work out who was speaking. I do know sometimes I skim over the he said she said which may be why I had to re read a few comments.

    Oh I have to say The musicman is one of my favourite movies and I actually got to be in it during high school. I often think of the song The sadder but wiser girl for me which starts of with
    “No wide-eyed, eager,
    Wholesome innocent Sunday school teacher for me.
    That kinda girl spins webs no spider ever”
    And think bout Harold as being a con man and someone who shouldn’t be admired and then reading Bobby’s thought it made me rethink the movie but I have to say I still like the movie.

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:03 pm

      In my mid-twenties, I went to a church at which our “spring musical” was some kind of Broadway-style production, and the year I participated, we did The Music Man, so it’s always been one of my favorites. And, of course, I played Mrs. Paroo—fake Irish accent and all!

      Like

      • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:00 pm

        Oh how cool. I was one of the children! and a red indian and then in the band (funny how hardly any boys join in the production) but it was so fun.

        Like

  2. Tuesday, March 15, 2011 4:18 am

    Excellent instruction, Kaye!! You’ve made me a life long minion. I’m painfully aware of dialogue tags as I’m reading since as a writer I know better. I find myself saying, “how’d you get away with that?” when someone uses an descriptive tag. Occasionally it works and I don’t mind. Your example shows how much more effective it is to avoid the tags and use action beats and introspection. This is always very challenging in writing, takes a lot of work. But if an author lacks skills in creatively writing these dialogue scenes it stands out as stilted and boring. It takes a lot of fancy weaving. I appreciate that when I’m reading.

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:07 pm

      Sometimes, when the dialogue is coming to me so fast that it’s all I can do to keep up, I’ll tag it with saids—and then later go back and take those out and fill in with action and introspection.

      Like

      • Wednesday, March 16, 2011 2:26 pm

        Good idea. Trying to come up with all those creative tags, etc. can stop you dead in your tracks sometimes.

        Like

  3. Tuesday, March 15, 2011 8:36 am

    I notice tags more now that I am writing. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but every once in awhile an author will overuse them, especially with -ly words and it is intrusive. I am trying to follow all these guidelines, but it sure gets hard to remember them all! 😉

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:11 pm

      As with more skills, the more you practice, the easier it is to implement the guidelines without having to think about it. But there’s a reason why we’re not supposed to be turning in our first drafts!

      Like

  4. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 8:44 am

    Love your example! What was funny was that when I started reading the first passage, it sounded vaguely familiar but I was so jarred by the saids and asks that I didn’t catch on until the actual passage. In a split second I recognized the characters and the book. How funny is that?

    I recently was poking around my favourite kid’s lit books from when I was a child and they are riddled with ‘said’. Every single conversation was tagged and tagged again! So then I started looking through more and they were all like that. My how times have changed!

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:14 pm

      This guideline really came home to me when I started listening to the Harry Potter books on audio—Rowling loves not only the saids, but the said+adverb combo. It is easier to overlook it when reading the book (when the eye can just skim over it) than to ignore it when listening to an unabridged audio version where hearing it over and over makes it stand out all the more.

      Like

  5. Tuesday, March 15, 2011 9:22 am

    I had the same experience as Kav and everybody else. I re-read an old favorite a month or so ago, and it hit me how much cleaner it was without all those tags. I also re-read some early stories of mine with tags, then some more recent ones, and wanted desperately to be able to go back and revise! Thanks, Kaye.

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:16 pm

      When I’m writing a dialogue-heavy scene longhand, sometimes I’ll even forgo “said” tags and write it more like a play:

      K: What are you doing?
      D: Nothing.
      K: Looks like you’re writing.
      D: I am.
      K: Then why did you say nothing?

      Like

  6. Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:02 am

    Good points, Kaye. For me it comes down to rhythm, and how fast-paced a scene or part of a scene needs to be. I like to eliminate as many tags as possible and use action beats instead. Or nothing at all as long as it’s clear who’s speaking. I know one writer who uses the “said -ly” construct for a particular series character (Diana Gabaldon’s Claire in the Outlander series) from choice, because it adds to that character’s somewhat sarcastic sense of humor and outlook on life. I never feel the need to mentally edit in that case because it works for that character’s voice. But that’s one character out of a huge cast.

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:18 pm

      That’s one of the reasons why I’ll sometimes leave it until the revision stage (usually before going on to the next scene, though) to fill in the introspection part of the scene. Because sometimes, it is all about the dialogue. And sometimes, I don’t know until the end of the scene what the POV character needs to be thinking/feeling throughout the dialogue until I get to the hook at the end.

      Like

  7. Pamela permalink
    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 1:34 pm

    “If you have an action or introspection that follows the dialogue, you don’t need to use said/asked. (And it will also eliminate the unnecessary/repetitious use of “as” and “when,” as shown in the examples.)”

    I totally agree with THIS statement. I find few other tags are necessary.

    However, I take exception to the people who say that “said” is ‘invisible’. It most certainly isn’t for me. In fact a passage with several will drag me kicking and screaming out of the story. It is a another example of a lazy echo, because, imho, a scene written correctly should make it possible to know who is speaking without …”xxx said.”

    One of the most useful exercises my writing groups have done is to write (or a take a scene from your wip) with all tags removed…and see if it is still possible to tell who is speaking from the non-verbal cues. Speech patterns. Attitudes. If all your characters sound alike, you have a deeper problem than just whether or not to use attrition tags.

    Thanks for an excellent post. Looking forward to what comes next.

    Like

  8. Tuesday, March 15, 2011 5:06 pm

    In not sure if its the way a kindle deals with a pdf or if its the writing style but the book I am reading doesn’t have the said but the lines are blending together so you dont see the change in speaking. Its confused me a few times. I am thinking it may be the pdf and the way its formed on the kindle but it is annoying at times. (Its a great book besides this)

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:19 pm

      It’s probably the PDF. I’ve had that problem with a few things I’ve gotten from Netgalley.

      Like

      • Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:03 pm

        I think thats it, It is a net galley and the first time using it on a kindle. but seeing as I went to bed early last night because I have been feeling sick for the past few days and then read for a few hours and 100 pages it must be a good read.
        Im taking a break from study right now cos im still feeling unwell. Maybe if I never eat again I will feel better (I doubt it but eating feels bad not eating feels bad!)

        Like

      • Thursday, February 7, 2013 4:50 pm

        Some of the NetGalley pdfs are awful. I had one that missed out ALL c’s and h’s. So the scene where the protagonist went fishing was really confusing.

        Did you at any fis? Two atfis? Nie.

        Like

  9. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Wednesday, March 16, 2011 1:46 am

    “Have you ever read something and noticed the dialogue tags because they were so overdone they brought attention to themselves? ”

    I’m sure I have, but what came to my mind when reading this was Donna Van Liere’s (sp?) “Christmas Shoes” series … but not because dialogue tags were overdone, but because I often lost my places because at times she used too little!

    Like

  10. Wednesday, March 16, 2011 7:40 pm

    I read a book last year. It was published two years ago and written by someone whose bio says they worked at a publishing house. Ah… makes sense. Nearly every line of dialogue had a “said” attribution. By page three, I wanted to hurl the book across the room. It makes my skin crawl even now thinking about it.

    Like

  11. Inscriber permalink
    Thursday, March 29, 2012 1:34 pm

    As an experiment, I wrote five novellas and used descriptive dialogue tags. I found the dialogue cumbersome and awkward. I repeated in the dialogue tags what was said in the dialogue. Boring. Normally, I stick with a “said” attribute not using it with every sentence. I intersperse action, inner thought, description, interaction, and reaction into before and after the dialogue.

    Like

  12. clh permalink
    Saturday, October 8, 2016 11:35 pm

    There’s this recurring problem among fan fiction writers of overusing the verb “stated”. It all comes from the misconception that any repetition of “said” is to be avoided at all costs, so many inexpert writers indiscriminately substitute in the word “stated” without realising it has its own nuance of meaning. I’ve actually seen it used with exclamations. Ex: “John!”, Adam stated. Drives me absolutely insane, but they don’t seem to realise just how jarring and inappropriate it is.

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. Is “Said” Really Dead? | Lissa Writes
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  3. Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part IVb: Dialogue « sundancepress
  4. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Debunking Writing Myths | KayeDacus.com
  5. He Said, She… Snarled? – E.C. Lee

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